Save wetlands and get a house

The Minnehaha Creek Watershed District’s innovative program allows compromise.

Perhaps conservationists and developers can find a compromise after all. The Minnehaha Creek Watershed District, which manages waterways and lakes from Minnestrista to Minneapolis, has developed a program, now in its third year, to save critical watershed ecosystems and develop valuable property at the same time.

Its 2006 budget of $2 million will go to purchasing land and real estate in important ecological areas and restoring most of it to healthy ecosystems. Then small pieces of it will be sold to developers to build houses. Selling this property pays for the initial purchase of the land. The agency’s latest purchase, a 36-acre farm, cost about $800,000. About 6 acres will be developed for three new houses, and their sale will almost, if not completely, cover the cost of the land. The preserved land is kept open through legal agreements.

The money comes from all levels of government, from cities to the state of Minnesota. The point is that the program is creative: It allows Minnesotans to purchase homes in desirable areas while preserving the wetlands and watersheds that are so important to Minnesota’s wilderness. So far, the district has saved 256 acres on a budget of about $1.5 million.

Wetlands in Minnesota are so important because their water flows into other major water bodies such as Lake Minnetonka and Minnehaha Creek, and subsequently the Mississippi River. By preserving and restoring the cleanliness and vitality of the wetlands, the downstream waters also are improved.

Protecting the wetlands has become even more crucial as more and more are lost to business, agriculture and development. The state’s Wetland Conservation Act offers exemptions to farmers and others to drain and fill wetlands with no permits or replacement requirements. Even seemingly small incremental losses result in thousands of acres’ worth of loss. If more districts would implement programs such as Minnehaha Creek’s, at least the loss would be slowed. It is a place to start, allowing conservationists and developers to cooperate.